Endless Possibilities [on PUMPKIN]

From the July 26, 2002 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

Pumpkin

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Adam Larson Broder and Tony R. Abrams

Written by Broder

With Christina Ricci, Hank Harris, Brenda Blethyn, Dominique Swain, Marisa Coughlan, Sam Ball, Harry Lennix, and Nina Foch.

When the New German Cinema started overtaking the French New Wave as a fashionable movement 30 years ago I felt alienated, as if someone had declared a major source of my moviegoing pleasure out-of-bounds. Taking the place of joie de vivre and jazzy invention were cynical disillusionment and cookie-cutter formal patterning — a new kind of style and content that its champions called subversive and its detractors (including me) called defeatist. Whether the mood was sarcastic (Rainer Werner Fassbinder), flamboyant (Werner Herzog), lyrical (Wim Wenders), or hieratic (Werner Schroeter), the overall message seemed to be that people and social conditions were doomed to remain mired in ruts and that hope was for suckers. The 70s were supplanting the 60s, and being glad you were alive was suddenly seen as wimpy and naive.

Little did I realize that this pessimism would remain in the culture while the German films heralding it would be forgotten even faster than the earlier French ones.… Read more »

Capra’s Catastrophe

This review of Frank Capra’s Broadway Bill (1934) first appeared in the August 7, 1992 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.

BROADWAY BILL

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Frank Capra

Written by Robert Riskin and Sidney Buchman

With Warner Baxter, Myrna Loy, Helen Vinson, Clarence Muse, Raymond Walburn, Walter Connolly, Margaret Hamilton, and Frankie Darro.

Though it’s surely a coincidence, the theatrical rerelease of Frank Capra’s Broadway Bill and the simultaneous publication of Joseph McBride’s Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success are mutually enhancing in a number of ways.

FrankCapraTCOS

Capra’s 1934 Christmas release was made for Columbia, bought by Paramount, and withdrawn from circulation over 40 years ago, when Capra was preparing a remake called Riding High (1950) — a Bing Crosby musical with virtually the same plot and dialogue that was so unmemorable that despite numerous TV screenings the film critic for the Boston Globe claimed last month that it had never been made at all. The much feistier Broadway Bill, by contrast, has never turned up on TV, and apart from a few archival airings has remained unseen for over half a century. A breezy if edgy racing comedy laced with some serious ingredients, it isn’t nearly as good as The Bitter Tea of General Yen or It Happened One Night, both of which preceded it, but on the other hand it isn’t as cloying as the worst parts of its successors Mr.Read more »

Jean Renoir’s Trilogy of Spectacle

The following, which I wrote circa March 2004, was commissioned for a Criterion box set; my thanks to Liz Helfgott, my editor there, for giving me the go-ahead to reprint this. — J.R.

Jean Renoir’s Trilogy of Spectacle

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Movie trilogies can be created by either filmmakers or critics. When Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote and directed The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and Arabian Nights (1973), he made no bones about calling them his Trilogy of Life. But when Michelangelo Antonioni followed L’avventura (1960) with La notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962), the intention was mainly apparent in the titles and a few echoes noted by critics, such as the presence of building sites at the beginning of the first and at the end of the third. As for the so-called Koker trilogy of Where is the Friend’s House? (1986), Life and Nothing More… (1992), and Through the Olive Trees (1994), Iranian writer-director Abbas Kiarostami explicitly refuses to yoke them together in this fashion—–which hasn’t prevented many critics and programmers from doing so.… Read more »

THE YOUNG ONE: Buñuel’s Neglected Masterpiece

This is an expanded version of an article published originally (on October 8, 1993) in the Chicago Reader; the Australian DVD label Madman commissioned this longer piece in  the summer of 2009. — J.R.

 

Let’s start with a dream scenario, a movie that might have been. What if Luis Buñuel made a picture with an American producer, American screenwriter, and American actors during the height of the civil rights movement and set it in the rural south? What if the main character were a jazz musician from the north fleeing from a southern lynching, falsely accused of raping a woman? And, to make a still headier brew, what if Buñuel decided to work in the theme of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a recent best-seller — the deflowering of a young girl by a middle-aged man?

As a piece of exploitation, this hypothetical project fairly sizzles; yet in the hands of a poetic, corrosive, highly moral filmmaker like Buñuel, it might conceivably transcend this category. Allowing for the strangeness that naturally arise from a foreign director taking on such volatile American materials — indeed, a strangeness that might enhance the freshness of his treatment -—one could well anticipate the beauty and excitement such an encounter might produce.Read more »

Our Sylvias — and Guerín’s

Written in April 2011 for the Cinema Guild DVD of In the City of Sylvia and Some Photos in the City of Sylvia. Alas, all of the illustrations used here come from the former of these, the second to have been made. — J.R.

in_the_city_of_sylvia

José Luis Guerín’s Some Photos in the City of Sylvia has been described, by myself and others, as a silent, black and white “study” (or filmed “treatment,”or “scenario”) in 2007 that formed the basis for In the City of Sylvia, a color and sound “remake”of the following year. Whether or not this might be technically accurate in terms of causality and financing, it now strikes me as an inadequate way of summarizing the fascinating relation between these two works. I even think it’s an error to view these two films as two versions of the same story — a mistake I made myself when I reviewed them together back in 2008 — because assuming this overlooks too many other things.

inthecityofsylvia-drawing

Just as there are viewers who prefer Chantal Akerman’s Golden Eighties (1983), her feature-length “preview” to her 1986 musical Window Shopping, and others who prefer Jean-Luc Godard’s 54-minute Scenario du Film “Passion” (1982) to his 88-minute Passion (made the same year), it’s entirely possible to prefer Guerín’s 67-minute “sketch” to his 84-minute feature.… Read more »

Inserts

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1989). I can happily report that this expertly realized tour de force — a brilliant adaptation of what is essentially highly theatrical material, rehearsed and blocked to the nines — is now out on a Twilight Time Blu-Ray. For all its nervy desire to wear its sordidness, black comedy, and sheer roughness on its sleeve, which kept it from having a commercial success in the 70s  and may still alienate some viewers now, this is basically a comedy about sexual vulnerability and shifting power plays between jaded Hollywood types with more bark than bite, and a surprisingly sweet aftertaste shining through all the harsh pseudo-toughness. — J.R.

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John Byrum’s controversial first feature, made in 1976, stars Richard Dreyfuss as a burned-out Hollywood genius director of the 20s, reduced in the 30s to making porn films in his own mansion. Wittily scripted and engagingly acted (by Dreyfuss, Jessica Harper, Veronica Cartwright, and Bob Hoskins), the film restricts all its action to a few hours in the director’s mansion, and is peppered liberally with inside movie references. Chances are you’ll either be bored stiff by the conceits or exhilarated; personally, I found it gripping throughout. (JR)

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Interruption As Style: Buñuel’s THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE

From the Winter 1972–1973 Sight and Sound. — J.R.

REPORTER: Who are your favorite characters in the movie?

BUÑUEL: The cockroaches.

— from an interview in Newsweek

“Once upon a time . . .” begins UN CHIEN ANDALOU, in mockery of a narrative form that it seeks to obliterate, and from this title onward, Buñuel’s cinema largely comprises a search for an alternative form to contain his passions. After dispensing with plot entirely in UN CHIEN ANDALOU, L’AGE D’OR, and LAS HURDES, his first three films, and remaining inactive as a director for the next fifteen years (1932–1947), Buñuel has been wrestling ever since with the problem of reconciling his surrealistic and anarchistic reflexes to the logic of story lines. How does a sworn enemy of the bourgeoisie keep his identity while devoting himself to bourgeois forms in a bourgeois industry? Either by subverting these forms or by trying to adjust them to his own purposes; and much of the tension in Buñuel’s work has come from the play between these two possibilities.

Buñuel can always tell a tale when he wants to, but the better part of his brilliance lies elsewhere.… Read more »

The Lewis Contradiction

Written for the Viennale’s catalogue accompanying its Jerry Lewis retrospective in October 2013, where it appears in German translation. — J.R.

 

1. Why Did — and Do — the Americans Love Jerry Lewis So Much?

…Jerry Lewis’s face, where the height of artifice blends at times with the nobility of true documentary. — Jean-Luc Godard on Hollywood or Bust, July 1957 (1)

The usual question — and by now a completely tiresome one — is, “Why do the French love Jerry Lewis so much?” People have been asking this question — mainly rhetorically rather than with any genuine curiosity about the answer — for over half a century, yet if it was ever worth asking in the first place, this was only for roughly the first two decades of that period. As far as I can tell, this was a love that was first fully declared in detail (though it was far from being universally accepted even in France, then or later) in December 1957, when Robert Benayoun published an article in Positif entitled “Simple Simon ou l’anti-James Dean”, although earlier appreciations, Godard’s among them, had already appeared by then.

This was only about a month before Lewis, having ended his partnership with Dean Martin a year and a half earlier, and subsequently become his own producer on Rock-a-Bye Baby, purchased a mansion in Bel Air that had formerly been owned by the late Louis B.Read more »

PEANUTS, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Gary Groth of Fantagraphics Books commissioned me to write this Introduction to the first volume of Charles Schulz’s Sunday color strips of Peanuts, covering the early 1950s, which was published in November 2013. — J.R.

 

“…I’ve made a lot of mistakes down through the years doing things I
never should have done. But fortunately, in a comic strip, yesterday
doesn’t mean anything. The only thing that matters is today and tomorrow.”
— Charles Schultz to Gary Groth (“At 3 O’clock in the Morning,”
Comics Journal #200, December 1997)

 

It was one thing to read Sunday color Peanuts comic strips from 1952 to 1955 at the rate of one per week, when they came out — and not only because they would have wound up in the trash like the rest of the Sunday paper, long before my brothers and I went to sleep that night. And it’s quite another thing to read them all today, piled together in the present volume, one after the other, seven or eight panels at a time, as if they’re the successive chapters of an ongoing serial — or maybe just the latest portions of an endless white picket fence that stretches towards some version of infinity or eternity (or at least roughly half a century of dependable continuity, in any case).… Read more »

2 or 3 Things I Know About Demy

Written for a retrospective catalog devoted to Jacques Demy, published by the San Sebastian International Film Festival, September 15-24, 2011. — J.R.

“Braque, Picasso, Klee, Miro, Matisse….C’est ça, la vie.”–- Maxence in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort

“Life is disappointing, isn’t it?”

–- Kyoko in Tokyo Story

1

I’ve never come across any critical discussion of common traits in the separate films of Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda, who lived together for three decades. Their oeuvres are in fact quite different and distinct from one another, but one striking characteristic they share as filmmakers is their preoccupation with indexing and cross-referencing their own works within their own films.

In chronicling and excerpting her own previous work, Varda’s Les Plages d’Agnès (2008) brings this tendency to a climax, but her DVD containing Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse (2000) and its sequel, Deux Ans Après, already formalizes and optimizes this tendency — which can be traced within and between some of her previous films — by allowing one to leap via one’s remote control from a character in the former documentary to the same person being filmed two years later (or vice versa). In a comparable spirit, Demy transplants Cécile/Lola (Anouk Aimée), the title heroine of his first feature (1960), from Nantes to Los Angeles in his fifth feature, Model Shop (1968), after having had her killed offscreen in Rochefort in his fourth feature, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1966).… Read more »

Falling Down, Walking, Destroying, Thinking: A Conversation with Béla Tarr

The following exchange appeared in Cinema Scope no. 8, September 2001. — J.R.

In the past, when I’ve interviewed filmmakers it’s been at my own initiative — or at least at the initiative of an editor making an assignment. This time, at the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Film in April 2001, where I was serving on the jury and introducing Béla Tarr at some of his screenings, someone handed me a tape recorder, and Mark Peranson agreed to transcribe the interview afterwards if I would speak to Béla, who’s been a friend ever since Sátántangó. I hope that the casual grammar on both sides of this conversation doesn’t obscure too much of the meaning. (J.R.)

BELA TARR: [...] In Sátántangó, we had a set. The doctor’s flat, it was built.

JONATHAN ROSENBAUM: You know, that’s my favorite scene in the film.

TARR: Yes, but it was built! It is artificial, but you don’t feel it in the movie…

ROSENBAUM: Maybe that’s why I like it so much, because it’s in such a small space.

TARR: No, it wasn’t small.

ROSENBAUM: But it feels small in the film.

TARR: Yeah, sure.

ROSENBAUM: Was the actor playing the doctor a professional actor or a nonprofessional?… Read more »

Nightmare as Funhouse Ride: Orson Welles’s THE TRIAL

Written for the StudioCanal Blu-Ray of The Trial in the Spring of 2012. I’m lecturing on this film tonight at the Lisbon Cinematheque. — J.R.

‘What made it possible for me to make the picture,’ Orson Welles told Peter Bogdanovich of his most troubling film, ‘is that I’ve had recurring nightmares of guilt all my life: I’m in prison and I don’t know why –- going to be tried and I don’t know why. It’s very personal for me. A very personal expression, and it’s not all true that I’m off in some foreign world that has no application to myself; it’s the most autobiographical movie that I’ve ever made, the only one that’s really close to me.  And just because it doesn’t speak in a Middle Western accent doesn’t mean a damn thing. It’s much closer to my own feelings about everything than any other picture I’ve ever made.’

To anchor these feelings in one part of Welles’ life, he was 15 when his alcoholic father died of heart and kidney failure, and Welles admitted to his friend and biographer Barbara Leaming that he always felt responsible for that death. He’d followed the advice of his surrogate parents, Roger and Hortense Hill, in refusing to see Richard Welles until he sobered up, and ‘that was the last I ever saw of him….I’ve always thought I killed him….I don’t want to forgive myself.… Read more »

Trying To Catch Up With Raúl Ruiz: A Conversation with Jonathan Rosenbaum

This appeared Cinema Scope no. 11 (summer 2002). — J.R.

“You can’t smell email,” Raúl Ruiz insisted to me the night before we had this interview at the 2002 Rotterdam Film Festival, explaining to me why he didn’t have any truck with the Internet. He added that lately he’s been collecting various first editions, excommunications, and death sentences, many of them from the 19th century and earlier, and he can smell all of them.

At first I was surprised by this old-fashioned form of resistance, but then the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Raúl is basically a 19th century figure. His largely Borgesian canon of 19th and early 20th century English and American writers (Chesterton, Stevenson, Wells, Harte, Hawthorne, Melville, et al) and his taste for rambling narratives and tales within tales smacks of a Victorian temperament.

I first encountered Ruiz’s work during my first trip to the Rotterdam Film Festival, in 1983, and it was there where we first became friends three years later —- as well as where we had this interview on January 26, in the lobby of the hotel where we were both staying. (Raúl had a small DV camera with him, and from time to time would idly shoot people coming through the hotel’s revolving-door entrance from where we sat a few yards away –- something, he explained, that he needed for his new Chilean TV series.)

Asked to produce a Welles tribute at the festival three months after Welles’s death, in early 1986, I met Oja Kodar —- Welles’s companion and major collaborator since the 60s — for the first time, and on my own initiative, knowing Ruiz’s affinity for both Isak Dinesen and Welles, lobbied unsuccessfully for Ruiz as the ideal person to film The Dreamers -— a cherished late Welles project starring Oja -— incorporating the material that Welles had already shot for it.… Read more »

Ruiz Hopping and Buried Treasures: Twelve Selected Global Sites

What dispiriting news, to learn of Raúl Ruiz’s death at age 70 upon waking today [in August 2011], just after receiving the Portuguese DVD box set of his extraordinary Mysteries of Lisbon yesterday and watching the first half of it last night. I knew, of course, that his health had been very poor, so this wasn’t entirely a shock. But it’s clearly a major loss. (A curious coincidence: Raúl lived the same number of years as the filmmaker he admired the most, Orson Welles.)

We had been friends for a time, then drew apart — mainly, I’m sorry to say, because he became a little fed up with my inability to speak and understand French more fluently. But I’m very grateful for the many hours we were able to spend together, including one opportunity I had to appreciate what an excellent cook he was. (For an excellent memoir about him, as well as one of the best appreciations of Ruiz that I know — even though I disagree with its premise that Klimt qualifies as a biopic [at least in its original, longer, and better version], and Raúl himself disagreed with the premise that Three Lives and Only One Death was one of his best films — check out Adrian Martin’s “A Ghost at Noon” on Girish Shambu’s indispensable blog.)

An annotated, critical Ruiz filmography through early 2005 can be found here.

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Mapping the Territory of Râúl Ruiz

Even though much of this early piece of mine about Ruiz (also available in my collection Placing Movies), originally published in separate versions in 1987 and 1990,  is out of date by now, and also incorrect in spots, I’ve decided to reprint and illustrate it here, well over two decades later, because of the way Ruiz inspired me to play various games of my own, as he did several years later when I wrote about him at some length again (here).  (August 2011, shortly after Ruiz’s tragic death, I’ve also updated the illustrations for my 2002 interview with him for Cinema Scope.) — J.R.

Preface

The sheer otherness of Râúl Ruiz in a North American context has a lot to do with the peculiarities of funding in European state-operated television that make different kinds of work possible. The eccentric filmmaker in the United States or Canada who wants to make marginal films usually has to adopt the badge or shield of a school or genre — art film, avant-garde film, punk film, feminist film, documentary, or academic theory film— in order to get funding at one end, distribution, promotion, and criticism at the other. Ruiz, however, needs only to accept the institutional framework of state television — which offers, as he puts it, holes to be filled — and he automatically acquires a commission and an audience without having to settle on any binding affiliation or label beyond the open-ended rubric of “culture” or “education.” Consequently, the sheer existence of Ruiz’s massive, varied work constitutes a genuine affront to the capitalist definitions of experiment governing our own culture.… Read more »